An Inspector Calls – Festival Theatre

Written by J B Priestley

Directed by Stephen Daldry

Rating: 5 out of 5.

 A house, broken. A country at war. A body. 

A tale on class, socialism, ‘white knights’, the welfare state, and guilt, this one-act play is currently touring its 30th anniversary – and a well-deserved one at that. One of the most prestigious works of contemporary British theatre, J B Priestley’s An Inspector Calls was never one to shirk from its political stance, so when the tale of the portentous Birling family finds themselves at the mercy of their swords, choked on their guilt hit the stages, well, one of the most successful mystery thrillers was created. 

Interrupting their rather spiffing evening, An Inspector Calls upon the Birling family for, at first, the most perplexing of reasons. A young woman, dead by suicide and left behind a small diary which detailed her final years of life. But surely the Birling family, who haven’t ever met this ‘Eva Smith’ have nothing to do with this? Well, regardless of how trivial the interaction may seem, what if that inconsequential action had a domino effect – one which was about to come crashing down on the Birling dinner party?

Masterlessly renowned in their performance, few would fully appreciate, at first, the tremendous wealth of talent in Liam Brennan’s spectacular role as the titular Inspector Goole. There are more than a few tricks under this hat. Unearthly, Goole is the paradoxical conundrum this production leaves us with, a walking enigma of coldness: yet welcoming and warm. Seemingly blind to the actions of others, yet several steps ahead. Even when pushing Daldry’s fourth wall breaks with the audience, the illusion isn’t broken – utterly sensational and commanding, Brennan is still a pleasure to watch with deft humour and thunderous rapture. Haunting, and tempting, Brennan’s aloof and trusting nature draws the most from his co-stars, lulling them into making their own decisions, their own revelations – enrapturing to watch.

Quickest to recognise this otherworldly quality of the Inspector is Sybil and Arthur Birling’s petulant, though quick to relinquish this, daughter Sheila. Chloe Orrock subverts the expectation for audiences, emerging as a conscience amidst the gluttony and avarice of the rest of her family – her pampered attitude ebbing somewhat the more Goole unveils. She offsets her more unhinged brother Eric, ensuring neither crosses the boundary into overplayed, George Rowlands catapulting themselves around the stage (physically and mentally) struggling to cope with the revelations. Belting out their finest radio voice, Sheila’s fiancé Gerald Croft initially seems to have the least involvement with the deceased, but gradually Simon Cotton turns in a gut-wrenchingly pathos-ridden performance of regret and honesty. Though leopards can’t change their spots, nor can they accept the blame.

The arrogance which Jeffrey Harmer and Christine Kavanagh exude could easily border on the cartoonish, but instead, in recent times, almost seems tame concerning the contempt that audiences readily find themselves facing. The Inspector’s initial line and the person who sets the events in motion, Harmer’s control of the stage steadily declines – a terrific physical presence, Arthur Birling believes his position to be above others. Gradually under Daldry’s direction, Harmer reverts himself to small stature, a man losing control, losing himself. Kavanagh’s response to revelation is perhaps the most striking, entirely self-centric and preserving – even at the most destructive divulgences.

The absolute brilliance, and in truth, the continuing success of the show lies in An Inspector Calls being a masterclass in storytelling. It’s vital to recognise the auditory aesthetic of it all, Daldry structuring a radio play into the foundations of the production – reinforced by Sebastian Frost’s audio design, slotting itself into Priestley’s writing remarkably well. The show opens with a prop Radio bursting into life amidst the terrors of an air-raid siren: its volume dials even play minor roles later in the production – another break of the fourth wall. There’s a necessity to the boldness of the performances, exuding over the monochrome setting. And these rare instances of colour against Ian MacNeil’s exceptionally creative and metaphorical design work of the Birling home, a doll-house of an abode, often misted and cascaded in rainfall, collect into a gutter pool which houses many of the Birling’s throwaways – and eventually more personal treasures. 

There’s a cobra strike assault on self-preservation, quick, ferocious and nothing left to chance in Priestley’s writing. Lessons are clear and unyielding, but even with the sixty years since inception – a refresher needs to be hammered into audiences of fire, blood, and agony. The magnificence of Priestley’s timeless production lies within its audience; it’s commanded silence broken only with appreciation, gasps of realisation, and thunderous applause of glee. 

If you’ve seen An Inspector Calls a thousand times, there’s always something more to each viewing, even with returning performances. Small clues and snippets are all stitched into the grander production. And if you’re new to all of this, well, we envy your first time. A captivating execution of glorious mystery, mesmeric in its control of the audience, both new and old, sublimely executed. There’s a reason this is a stage classic, and there’s a reason audiences are elated with its return. 

An Inspector Calls runs at the Festival Theatre until February 4th.

The show runs for 1 hour and 50 minutes without interval. Tuesday – Saturday at 19.30pm, and Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday at 14.30pm. Suitable for ages 8+

Tickets are available from £21.50, which may be obtained here..

Photo Credit – Mark Douet


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